English Tea Clipper
On 22nd November 1869, a beautiful little clipper ship of 963 tons gross was launched at Dumbarton on the Scottish Clyde. On that day, she was given a name that was to become renowned throughout the seafaring world, and destined to win a place in the hearts of British seamen, coming second only to Nelson’s own immortal ‘HMS Victory’ ~ and that was Cutty Sark. She was built for John ‘Jock’ Willis, a seasoned sailing ship master who had ‘swallowed the anchor’ and set up as a fleet owner in the Port of London – where he became better known as “White Hat Willis”. His previous vessels had not had the performance results he wanted and his ambition for the Cutty Sark was for her to be the fastest ship in the annual race to bring home the first of the new season’s tea from China.
The ship was designed by Hercules Linton, a partner in the Glasgow firm of Scott & Linton. His achievement was to mould the bowlines of Willis’s earlier vessel, ‘The Tweed’ into the midship attributes of Firth of Forth fishing boats, creating a beautiful new hull shape that was stronger, could take more sail, and be driven harder than any other. The company had never built a ship of this size before and were keen to accommodate their client’s every demand. Unfortunately for them, Willis, being so canny a Scot and wanting the best for the least, drove so hard a bargain that the builders, together with their brilliant young designer, sank without trace! The final details of the fitting out had to be completed by another company ~ William Denny & Brothers.
Although her early years under her first master, Captain George Moodie, saw some sterling performances, fate was to thwart her owner’s hopes of glory in the tea trade: in the very same year of her launching, the Suez Canal was opened, allowing steamers to reach the Far East via the Mediterranean, a shorter and quicker route not accessible to sailing ships, whose freights eventually fell so much that the tea trade was no longer profitable. So Cutty Sark’s involvement in the China run was short lived, her last cargo of tea being carried in 1877.
For the next several years, she was forced to seek cargoes where she could get them, and it was not until 1885 that she began the second (and more illustrious) stage of her career. The ship’s heyday was in the Australian wool trade, which was overseen by Captain Richard Woodget, from 1885 to 1895.
Here was a virtuoso mariner who ‘played’ the Cutty Sark like the responsive ‘instrument’ she was. He knew how to get the last quarter-knot from the ship and during his time, she repeatedly made the fastest passage home from Australia. Yet… by 1895, she was again no longer making money for her owner and was unceremoniously sold off to the Portuguese as the Ferreira ~ although her crews referred to her (significantly) as Pequina Camisola (‘little shirt’).
She laboured steadfastly for her new masters for almost three more decades, regularly trading between Oporto, Rio, New Orleans and Lisbon, in the service of Portugal’s colonial possessions. Dismasted in a storm in the Indian Ocean in 1916, she was re-rigged as a barquentine to carry less sail, a decision necessitated by a wartime shortage of spar timber. In 1920 she was sold again, this time becoming the Maria do Amparo.
In 1922, she underwent a refit at London’s Surrey Docks. On her journey home from that refit, she was driven into Falmouth Harbour by a Channel gale. There she was spotted by Captain Wilfred Dowman, a Cornish mariner who, as an apprentice seaman back in 1894, had seen her ‘slicing by’ at full sail and had never forgotten that breathtaking sight. She was now very much dilapidated and destined to become a hulk, so Captain Dowman made his move. He approached her Portuguese owners, bought her for the sum of £3,750 and had her restored, re-rigged and flying the ‘Red Duster” once again.
Upon Capt. Dowman’s death in 1938, his widow presented the newly restored clipper to the Incorporated Thames Nautical Training College at Greenhithe on the Thames, where the vessel remained until after the Second World War, when the college acquired a larger steel-built ship for its cadets. Once more, Cutty Sark became ‘surplus to requirements’.
Lengthy discussions ensued over her future which ultimately led to her being towed to a mooring off Greenwich in 1951. Eventually, the Cutty Sark Society was formed by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and the ship was gifted to the society. In December 1954 she was moved into a specially constructed dry dock at Greenwich.
Izak J H Hough
Member of The Nautical Research Guild